The Ups and Downs in General Hieu’s Military Career

General Hoang Xuan Lam wrote:

I had met Nguyen Van Hieu, a cadet officer class of Tran Hung Dao in 1950, when the South Vietnam army started to train commanders for its armed forces. His military career had climbed up gloriously, assuming the Command of 22nd Division, 5th Division and Deputy Corps Commander with the rank of Major General.

General Hieu’s military career had climbed up gloriously indeed; however, it was not without bumpers that slowed down the pace of its ascension.

First Bumper

When General Hieu’s father, at that time Deputy Director of Northern Police and Security Bureau, attended the graduation ceremony of 3rd Class Tran Hung Dao, a French instructor told him that cadet Hieu graduated with the highest scores; nevertheless, the official designated as first ranking was Bui Dzinh, who originated from Central Vietnam, to please Emperor Bao Dai.

It is unfortunate that the current situation does not allow to verify this fact by examining the records of cadet Bui Dzinh, who had been promoted from non-commissioned officer in the French Expeditionary Army, and cadet Hieu, a civilian who had to undergo an examination. However, Colonel Dinh Van Chung, AFVN, 3rd Class, always thought of General Hieu as the first ranking; he wrote on February 19, 1999:

I can never forget that day when the whole cadets' Brigade was dressed in white uniform, discarding the "alpha" epaulet to be replaced by the brand-new First Lieutenant's epaulet and kneeling in front of the National Altar to be sworn in.

In Hieu's case, as the valedictorian, he represented his class in shooting four arrows to four different directions, symbolizing the liberated spirit of the youth that would engage us in all four avenues of life, then drew his sword high up to swear in. Up on the National Altar were inscribed these words: "Nation - Honor - Responsibility", that's the motto every officer of the Military Academy must follow faithfully.

After a few days, on 02/23/1999, he recanted:

Few days ago I sent you a short article on General Hieu. In that article I might have erred regarding Hieu being the valedictorian of Dalat 3rd Class. Please check and if there was an error I apologize, it had been already 50 years. The person that I might have mistaken was Bui Dzinh who scored very close to Hieu. Again please forgive me if there was any mistake. Chung.

This mistake is quite understandable since all the 3rd Class cadets were well aware cadet Hieu was the best in academic subjects (maths, French, English, etc…), the best in military subjects (tactical map reading, fire range shooting, general staff, discipline, etc…) and the best in physical education (high jump, field and track, weight throwing, etc…)

In the Hieu/Dzinh controversy, François Buis, voices the following opinion:

Regarding the 3rd Class Tran Hung Dao of the National Military Academy of Vietnam, based on information I have obtained, General Hieu had the highest grade in general knowlege and academic subjects but cadet Bui Dzinh was elected Valedictorian of this class due to his good knowlege in military subjects since the two were at the Military Academy, and not at the university of general instruction!

I also read the arguments on this issue (Valedictorian of 3rd Class/Dalat) - one said that Bui Dzinh had been referred by Bao Dai, another said that he originated from the center of Vietnam, the same region as Emperor Bao Dai... I don't think these arguments are correct since there was not only one instructor who judged who was better... but it was a group of officers and instructors of the Military Academy. The Valedictorians of 1st and 2nd Classes (Nguyen Huu Co et Ho Van To) did not originated from the same region as the Emperor.

I keep contact with Mr. Bui Dzinh in France since I am a relative of his family, he confirmed that General Hieu had a good general education and was a graduated but Bui was elected Valedictorian of his class because of his strong point: military. He was promoted Lieutenant Colonel while residing in the United States with three friends: General Ho Van To, Lieutenant Colonel Tran Thien Khiem and Major Nguyen Duc Xich at the Army Command and General Staff College - Fort Leavenworth - Kansas in 1959. It was President Ngo Dinh Diem's decision based on report of this college.

I don't make the comparison between General Hieu and Mr. Bui Dzinh in terms of their military career since they were brothers-in-arms and cadets of the same class of the Military Academy. Bui put an end to his military career following the coup of 11/1/63 and the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem. He was put in "leave of absence without pay" by the decision of the "military revolution committee" in 1963 for serious offense: refuse to collaborate with the "committee" and the Two Stars were proposed to and taken up by Mr. Nhan Minh Trang to the 9th Infantry Division in Sadec on November 2, 1963. Bui said: "We lost the war against the communists since the death of Ngo Dinh Diem." (Readers’ Comments #350)

Colonel Dinh Van Chung said that The Military Academy had molded him into an officer, worthy of that name, both physically and mentally. Later in this military career, cadet Hieu blossomed into an all around general.

Second Bumper

Right after his graduation, First Lieutenant Hieu was inflicted with tuberculosis and was admitted into Lanessan Hospital in Hanoi where received treatment for a while then released to home for a two year convalescent period. By July 1953, he was automatically promoted to Lieutenant, as dictated by regulations, slower than his classmates who already wore the grade of Captain for having ample opportunities to gain combat credits on the battlefields. General Lu Lan recounted:

After the graduation, I was assigned to a unit garrisoned in Quang Tri and participated continuously in many big operations. After being promoted to the rank of Captain, I was sent to Hanoi to attend a General Staff training class. I immediately sought out Hieu, who was convalescing at Lanessan hospital. We went to a diner on Hang Dao Street to talk. Hieu listened to my passionate narration of my military exploits with envy then lamented: "I am now disabled. I am doomed for the rest of my life."

Third Bumper

By 1958, the American government increased the budget set aside for President Ngo Dinh Diem to send 7, 8 high ranking Vietnamese officers to attend the US Army Command and General Staff College in preparation for the command of a division and corps. With his college level and English proficiency, General Hieu should be among those first to be sent to attend this military training. But his turn only came in 1963.

Following is a list of officers who had attended the US Army Command and General Staff College that I was able to gather. Some attended the one-year session, some other attended the intensive five-month session, based on an individual's readiness and on battlefields' demands:

- 1955: Nguyễn Bảo Trị, Vĩnh Lộc, Trần Văn Hổ
- 1956: Bùi Đ́nh Đạm, Cao Văn Viên, Nguyễn Vinh Michel, Huỳnh Văn Khương, Trần Thanh Chiêu
- 1957: Nguyễn Văn Chuân;, Tôn Thất Đính, Bùi Hữu Nhơn, Nguyễn Hữu Có
- 1958: Trần Ngọc Huyến, Nguyễn Khánh, Lữ Mộng Lan, Cao Hảo Hớn, Nguyễn Hữu Hạnh, Phạm Văn Đổng, Nguyễn Đức Thắng, Lâm Văn Phát
- 1959: Trần Ngọc Tám, Đỗ Cao Trí, Lê Văn Kim, Linh Quang Viên, Huỳnh Văn Cao, Mai Hữu Xuân, Nguyễn Duy Hinh
- 1960: Bùi Dzinh, Hồ Văn Tố, Trần Thiện Khiêm, Nguyễn Đức Xích
- 1961: Nguyễn Xuân Trang, Nguyễn Vĩnh Nghi
- 1962: Phạm Quốc Thuần, Phạm Ngọc Sang, Tạ Thanh Long, Lư Trọng Song, Trần Thanh Phong
- 1963: Nguyễn Văn Hiếu, Nguyễn Xuân Thịnh, Đỗ Kế Giai, Phạm Đăng Lân, Phan Hữu Nhơn, Ngô Dzu
- 1964: Đào Duy Ân, Lâm Quang Thi, Lâm Quang Thơ, Vơ Văn Cảnh, Thẩm Nghĩa Bôi, Phạm Ngọc Thảo, Trương Quang Ân
- 1965: Phan Đình Soạn, Nguyễn Hợp Đoàn, Lê Văn Thân, Lê Ngọc Triển
- 1966: Lê Khắc Lý, Nguyễn Đình Sách, Trần Tử Oai, Trần Bá Di, Lý Bá Hỷ, Trần Văn Cẩm
- 1967: Phạm Kim Chung, Nguyễn Văn Chức
- 1968: Lê Trí Tín, Nguyễn Hữu Mai
- 1969: Nguyễn Ngọc Sáu, Chương Dzềnh Quây
- 1970: Nguyễn Tiến Lộc
- 1971: Đoàn Văn Liễu
- 1972: Trần Quang Khôi
- 1973: Lê Nguyên Vỹ
- 1974: Trần Văn Thưởng; Nguyễn Văn Hảo, Huỳnh Vinh Lại, Phan Trọng Sinh

Fourth Bumper

Since he was equally apt in combat/tactics and in general staff/strategy, when it came to select army branches at the graduation, General Hieu had hard time in making up his mind. Joining a combat army branch or unit, such as Airborne, Marine Corps, Armor, Artillery, and roaming the battlefields would provide more opportunites for quick advancement than working in the general staff field in an office. However, two factors had lead General Hieu to take the route of general staff: his health condition (tuberculosis) and his French proficiency (Because at the Joint General Staff, G heads were still French officers, it was the general practice to send officers who were fluent in French to work at the JGS). Captain Hieu held the position of G3 deputy head at JGS from 1953 to 1957. In 1957, Major Hieu followed General Don to Da Nang to become I Corps deputy chief of staff. In 1963, he was sent to attend a five-month intensive advanced military training at US Army Command and General Staff College. Upon graduation, he was assigned 1st Infantry Division Chief of Staff, under General Tri.

In the two years of 1963 and 1964, General Hieu had the opportunity for quick advancement when he was assigned to a combat position. Unfortunately, he only remained a short time in theses two positions and was reverted back to general staff position, jeopardizing his quick advancement. The first time, after the November 1963 coup, Major Hieu was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. It was during that time that Lieutenant Colonel Hieu lead a unit of the 1st Infantry Division to encircle Can’s palace and met in private with Can, President Diem’s younger brother. He succeeded in persuading Can to order the palace guards to surrender without having to shoot a bullet. Then two weeks later,when General Tri was assigned I Corps Commander, in replacement of General Nghiem, General Tri promoted Lieutenant Colonel Hieu to Colonel and assigned him to be the interim 1st Infantry Division Commander. Mid-December 1963, the Junta of Generals, in order to assuage the opposition of the Buddhist sympathizers, swapped the positions of I and II Corps Commanders between General Tri and Nguyen Khanh. Colonel Hieu relinquished his 1st Infantry Division Commander position to Colonel Tran Thanh Phong and followed General Tri to Pleiku to be his II Corps Chief of Staff.

The second time General Hieu lost a combat opportunity was when after he was assigned by General Tri, II Corps Commander, to be 22nd Infantry Division Commander on 9/10/1964, he was pulled back by General Co who replaced General Tri as II Corps Commander, to his previous position of I Corps Chief of Staff on 10/24/1964. According to Vuong Hong Anh, "If Colonel Hieu remained as 22nd Division Commander the first time until after 10/1964, he would have been promoted to Brigadier General in the end of 10/1964. Reason: end of 10/1964, General Khanh, prior of relinquishing the government to a civilian authority (President Phan Khac Suu, Prime Minister Tran Van Huong) had signed a decree to promote to Brigadier General to all Colonels who was holding the position of Division Commander, Army Branch Commander, Corps Deputy Commander, like in the case of Du Quoc Dong who had been made Colonel on 9/15/1964 to be the Airborne Commander in replacement of General Cao Van Vien, was promoted to Brigadier General by reason of job position."

It was not until General Vinh Loc gave to Colonel Hieu the command of 22nd Infantry Division on 6/12/1966 that kicked the advancement into high gear: one year later, one star; and the following year, two stars, due to combat achievements. Had he remained in the position of 1st Infantry Division Commander in 1963 and 22nd Infantry Division Commander in 1964 as above-mentionned, General Hieu undoubtedly would have snatched a third star.

Fifth Bumper

Those years at the helm of 5th Infantry Division had been the most fulfilling years for General Hieu. Enjoying total trust and support from General Tri, General Hieu had ample opportunity to unfold his tactical and strategic skills to the max. He wiped completely the VC out of the three provinces of Binh Duong, Binh Long and Phuoc Long. With such a feat, he merited another star and should be entrusted with the command of III Corps. That had been in fact General Tri’s request when President Thieu wanted him to replace General Lam as I Corps Commander in charge of Lam Son 719 Operation. However, Thieu rejected that request and nominated General Minh instead, when General Tri died suddenly in a helicopter accident in February 1971.

Not only were he not promoted, General Hieu was relieved of the command of 5th Infantry Division by General Minh after the withdrawal from Snoul.

Sixth Bumper

Afterwards General Hieu was transferred to Danang to hold the position of I Corps Deputy Commander, as an assistant to General Lam, one of his military academy classmates. It was only a sinecure position, which explains why later General Lam completely forgot General Hieu had served under him at I Corps from 6/1971 to 2/1972.

Seventh Bumper

Well aware he had been marginalized militarily, when Vice President Huong invited him to become his Special Assistant in charge of anti-corruption, General Hieu gladly accepted the invitation.

Although this function allowed him to deploy some of his other pluralistic skills, General Hieu nevertheless felt restless since his exceptional military skills were not put to use in one of the three big Easter 1972 battles in Kontum, Quang Tri and An Loc.

At the outset, because President Thieu underestimated General Hieu, he enjoyed relative freedom of action. Only relative freedom, since although he succeeded in the Military Pension Fund which caused the demise of General Vy as Defense Minister, General Hieu knew he could not touch two sacred cows: Air Vietnam, because its son’s director was about to marry President Thieu’s daughter, and General Dang Van Quang, because Quang was President Thieu’s Special Advisor.

Then when President Thieu saw General Hieu was getting too bold, daring even to investigate him, he limited General Hieu’s juridistion to the level of district chief and lower. A presidential pre-approval was required prior to commencing an investigation at province chief’s level. General Hieu’s hands were tied. Nevertheless, he continued to secretely build corruption dossiers of sizable crooks, among whom was General Quang, that he left in Vice President Huong’s hands when he returned to the Army in October 1973. It was this dossier that allowed Huong as the newly installed President in replacement of Thieu who resigned on April 21, 1975, to sign his very first decree of relieving General Quang of his Presidential Special Advisor. Thieu did dispatch an emissary to request Huong not to fire Quang and to allow him to resign instead. Huong turned down the request.

Eight Bumper

Disgusted in his powerless role in the fight of anti-corruption, General Hieu acquiesced to General Thuan’s invitation to work for him as his III Corps Deputy Commander in charge of Operations. In this capacity, he had the opportunity to exercise his tactical skills in the use of blitzkrieg tactic (lighting war) deploying a huge force equivalent to three divisions to assault 5th Division NVA’s HQ located in Svay Rieng Province, deep inside Cambodian territory.

Although he recognized General Hieu’s talents, President Thieu was afraid to entrust General Hieu with the command of III Corps and still wanted to use his talents by maintaining him as a Deputy Commander, while he assigned General Dong then General Toan to the position of III Corps Commander. But then finally, Thieu resorted to have General Hieu’s killed on April 8, 1975, two weeks prior to his resignation as President.


Despite of being independent, non-subservient, uncorrupt, straitghtforward and gentle, General Hieu was able to climb up gloriously the military hierarchic ladder. This fact shows that the authorities valued General Hieu’s exceptional talents, although they were unsympathetic to him, distrusted him and dared not make use of his talents to the maximum.

General Tran Van Don once said, Were there more generals of the same caliber as General Hieu’s in the ARVN, South Viet Nam would not have been lost into the hands of Communists.

As a way to conclude, I quote two comments (# 245 and # 294) from Readers’ Comments:

Each time I visited General Hieu's Page, I got the impression I was standing in front of a Monumental Memorial, and was contemplating each page that recounts the Epic History of our country. Furthermore, besides all these Greatness, Epopee, I got the impression I also see right in front of my eyes the Sacred Soul, Valiant Spirit of a great General, with his finger pointing up showing the way to his countrymen. I respectfully lay everything in front of the memorial of Great General Nguyen Van Hieu, a great hero of our country in this modern time.

For a long while, I got to visit General Hieu' Page again. If we just glance through this site, we would not notice the big difference between this site and some other sites regarding other men. After reading all the articles concerning General Hieu, I detected many values in Him that all the writers were able to touch upon a few. Taking the articles as a whole, it is a great enterprise depicting a great General. I also see that up to now, he has been given the rank of Major General, Lieutenant General, even General or Marshal, that still seems inadequate. In my opinion, may be a more exact word would be Illustrious General Nguyen Van Hieu. What do you think? I pray that you receive abundant help from the Holy Spirit in order to continue to work on honoring our Illustrious General, a Great Man of his people.

Nguyen Van Tin
March 15, 2005
Updated on 12.21.2008

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